Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) has spoken about his return to cyclo-cross racing at the weekend, saying he feels better than he did upon his restart in 2019 despite starting his 'cross campaign over a month later this time around.
The Dutchman won't race against long-time rival Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) for the first time until the Namur World Cup on December 20 but will face Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) and World Cup leader Michael Vanthourenhout in two races at the weekend – the X2O Trofee in Antwerp and Superprestige Gavere.
Speaking to WielerFlits and other Belgian media, Van der Poel said a few more weeks of preparation before starting his 2020-21 'cross campaign but will be able to race the season with no pressure, having already won everything there is to win in the sport.
"I can't judge Van Aert but I wanted to take a little more time and build in a longer rest period," he said. "Two more weeks of waiting would have been even better, but you have to start somewhere, and you still need a few races to get a good feeling.
"Cyclo-cross is a very specific sport and the level is high. It's not as obvious as you think to compete against those guys who have already been competing longer than they did last year. Thanks to the COVID-19 crisis we come from a completely different period.
"In addition, Wout has raced a Grand Tour, so he's even more of a road racer [than me]. You have to give us the opportunity to let us get back into rhythm.
"I think I'm a little better prepared now than I was a year ago but in terms of the technical side, I haven't done much yet – I've only trained on the 'cross bike three times."
Last season, Van der Poel started his 'cross campaign at the fourth round of the Superprestige series in Ruddervoorde in early November, while this time around there are just three rounds left, though the bulk of the X2O Trofee and World Cup calendars are still left to run.
Having detailed his 20-21 calendar earlier this week, he'll only ride a partial calendar in the run-up to the Worlds in Ostende on January 31, taking in four rounds of the X2O Trofee, a single World Cup round in Namur, and two Superprestige races later this month, as well as the Dutch National Championships on January 9.
Van der Poel has made it clear that a fourth rainbow jersey is his goal for the season.
"That's the only thing. I don't have any rankings to defend so outside of the Worlds, nothing is necessary. But I start every 'cross to win. Without pressure," he said.
"I don't want to sound arrogant, but I once set goals in cyclo-cross and I achieved them all. That means the pressure is gone. Winter used to be the season in which I had to prove myself but now my goals are in the summer. That doesn't mean I'll be less enthusiastic or less sharp at the start, though."
When Van der Poel eventually does return to the road in 2021, it will be for his fullest road season yet with a complete spring Classics campaign and hopefully a Grand Tour debut at the Tour de France on the cards.
The reigning Tour of Flanders champion will naturally build his year around those two periods, with the cross-country mountain bike race at the delayed Tokyo Olympics his other big goal. The race comes just nine days after the end of the Tour and so poses a challenge and a careful planning of goals and preparation.
"I intend to make the [Tour and Olympics] combination. The problem is that I don't have a choice. Yes, I assume I'll start the Tour with the goal of reaching Paris. I have no intention of leaving early, but I realise it's not an ideal combination," he said.
"My goal is to win a stage at the Tour. The green jersey must be somewhere in the back of our minds. Imagine that suddenly there's an opportunity for it… But it's certainly not one of my planned goals.
"There's also a preliminary plan to ride two or three mountain-bike World Cups to grab some points. It took a long time to reach the top of mountain biking, but now that the whole calendar disappeared, I feel like I lost a year. It has become my favourite discipline and it's also the toughest of the three."
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